A creaking gate lasts longest!

Male fern – Dryopteris filix-mas – I think; with Hart’s Tongue which at least I’m sure about!

I blame Helena, our VC6 (North Somerset) County Recorder, for getting me interested in ferns. Madame and I had joined a field trip to the Mendips, and in particular to a nature reserve elegantly named “GB Gruffy” The day is etched in my memory for two reasons; firstly because Helena spotted and named an unusual fern nestling six feet down a gated mineshaft. At the time my knowledge of ferns was confined to Bracken and Hart’s Tongue and I wasn’t even sure about bracken, so I was filled with admiration for her expertise. The other reason for remembering was that somehow I lost a rather expensive telescopic lens whilst yomping across the tussocky clumps in a deep bog.

Ferns have been around an awfully long time – around 300 million years – so they can certainly claim longevity in addition to a complicated sex life and the gift of occasionally doubling up on their chromosomes. They are – it’s true – very challenging to identify, or at least some of them are, and so they’re also fatally attractive to propeller heads like me. So after my brief excursion back to my old day job which really did stir up the silt of memories at the bottom of my pond, Madame made sure that our time was filled with anything that didn’t involve me wearing a frock. Distraction therapy, you might say. So we went up to Mendip to hunt for fungi – rather unsuccessfully; then we went to a fine lecture on bees – but not honey bees – and I found myself volunteering to lead a field trip in the spring, the thought of which is terrifying because I’ll be with a couple of co-leaders, a birder and an entomologist who really know what they’re up to. Imposter syndrome is a painful business! We drove back up to Priddy in the campervan for a couple of nights but the trip was overshadowed by heavy rain and thick fog, so we came home a day early. Since then we’ve been vaccinated for flu and Covid and I’ve had my new drug regime finalized. There’s nothing fatal wrong with me except worn out joints and an over excitable heart which requires that I take medicines with nasty side effects and which take weeks to bed down. My only concession to all this is to wear mittens a lot of the time because I now have Raynauds and my fingers get painful and stiff. I’m not quite 300 million years old but it occasionally feels like it, and so I’ve become a bit of a creaking gate.

Now prepare yourself for a true stinker of a link because a real creaking gate featured in yesterday’s walk. The sun was shining and Madame, continuing her campaign of loving distraction, took us off to Newton Park for a stroll around the lake so I could look for ferns and try out three new ID apps on my phone. This is going to be the subject of my talk next spring – phone apps and AI and their strengths and weaknesses.

Newton St Loe is a place that seems to be wholly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and so it’s a picture perfect village where even the no parking signs are made from cast iron. We parked the car as far from the signs as we could and bumped into a party of about a dozen people led by a man wearing a Viyella shirt with well pressed trousers and gleaming brown shoes. I concluded that he was a land agent or some such because they were all laughing at his jokes. We joined them as we walked up the road towards the church and unwittingly divided them into two groups. As we left the churchyard I became fascinated by the creaking of the gate because it sounded three distinct notes and so they waited a bit impatiently as I swung it to and fro and even sang along with it. I love the sounds that gates make. There’s a broken gate made from tubular steel on one of our favourite walks where we camp at St Davids. It sings sweetly like a flute and depending on the wind strength will even fluctuate over several harmonics. S

]Natural sounds are so important. Later as we sat alongside the lake I was trying out a birding app called Merlin – which is amazingly accurate. There were few birds that could compete with the sound of the wind in the still fully leaved trees, but crows, jackdaws, coot and mallard were all calling. Aside from that our best sighting was a hornet which dashed for cover among some laurels, and I found lots of Male ferns, which isn’t surprising because they’re ubiquitous in the UK. On the other hand I do at least know now what they’re called and – being a bit of a creaking gate myself – I could just have 299 million years left to learn the rest of them. But I’m not holding my breath.


Having written this piece, I realized in the middle of the night that with a little bit of detective work I could probably find the name of the fern that Helena spotted – apart from asking her, that is. So there’s a very useful document from the British Geological Survey which I often refer to, called the Biodiversity of Western Mendip which covers most of my favourite places. Turning to the section called GB Gruffy Site I discovered that a moderately unusual fern called the Brittle Bladder fern, Cystopteris fragilis occurs on that site but just to double check I went to the BSBI Atlas 2020 website and searched for it. One of the key tools for finding plants is to know their habitat and so when I read that this fern is most often found growing in the semi darkness of cave entrances and mineshafts and then found a confirmatory 2 KM dark square with the site in the middle I was delighted. Even more delightful was the news that one of my long-term bucket list plants – the Spring Sandwort, Minuartia verna also grows nearby. All I need to do is wait ’till next spring!

Restharrow time

I guess that the harrowing of a field, even with a team of horses, would come to a halt when the tines dug into a mat of this plant. We’ve seen it before but always near the coast; I think the last time was in Portscatho in Cornwall but that was before my phone camera days – now my Pixel 6a does it all + lat & long which with a bit of fiddling yields a National Grid reference and a searchable database as well.

But I also love the name, because resting and harrowing have such wide fields of reference and the plant name Restharrow conjures up a ploughman calling his team back by name with a loud whooooa and pondering his next move. Wood engravings by Thomas Bewick, paintings by Samuel Palmer and the writing of George Ewart Evans come to mind and I’m plunged into rural history by a small but very pretty plant and a name with a cloud of meanings.

These words, the ones that trail clouds of meanings are useful but also tricky. On Friday night I was sleepless for hours. A southwesterly gale was blowing; rocking the campervan and soughing noisily through the leaky windows and I caught sight of the moon through a small gap at the top of the blind. But the moon wasn’t about to lend herself to any of the usual associations. For a start she was pale golden yellow rather than silvery and her usual progress across the sky seemed – well – vagrant, furtive under interrogation by my sleepless mind. Is it even possible to imagine a vagrant moon, stealing across the sky over Ramsey Sound with a haul of sunshine from somewhere always beyond the western horizon and then sinking quietly behind the clouds, or behind the brightening sky, in the dawn?

I lay awake for a while more and had one of our nocturnal chats with Madame, then fell asleep eventually attempting to disambiguate the highly ambiguous Male-ferns we’d found and photographed. It’s like counting sheep without ever arriving at a conclusion and sleep came as a relief

I think I must be addicted to the west; to sunsets and South Westerly storms and to the sunny days that always feel like a gift rather than a right. Here we watch the fierce tides flow through Ramsey Sound, intermittently covering and revealing the Bitches, a dreadful reef to any unwary sailor or canoeist – not that it ever seems to deter them. During the daytime the peace is rent by the ribs which offer so-called wildlife tours around the island but which seem to be extreme water adventures in anything but name, probably terrifying the wits out of any seals unfortunate enough to have hauled up on an inaccessible beach. I really cannot imagine any less viable way of seeing wildlife than travelling in a (f) bucking rib at 30 mph.

The gale hasn’t let up for days, but we get intermittent spells of sunshine and it’s been good for plant hunting and then cataloguing in the stormy intervals. That’s a good holiday – arriving with a suitcase full of worthy books, encountering the mental equivalent of a clump of Restharrow and being forced to slow down or take a break.

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